Nous Christou

imageThe Spirit so radically expands the horizons of awareness, of space and time, of life and death…that such reductionistic notions become almost trivial. Thus it should be stressed that the main thrust of 1 Cor. 2 is not negative but overwhelmingly affirmative. It is not to denigrate nous or mind but to proclaim what is in the nous Christou [the mind of Christ]. It is here that one sees and participates in “what eye has not seen and ear has not heard.” What has not entered into the human mind, God has prepared for those who love him. This is open to those whose spirits, in agreement with the Holy Spirit, search out the deep things of creation and of God, and whose relationship to God preserves the vital relationality that marks them as bearers of the image of God. To be endowed by the Holy Spirit with the nous Christou is not other-worldly, but it is instead to perceive and to behold this world as if for the first time because it is knowing the world through the Logos, the One through whom all things have been made. The natural order then becomes, remarkably, the creation of God in which every moment is sustained by God’s grace alone.

James Loder, The Knight’s Move

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What Jesus suffered

11-The-Agony-in-the-GardenJesus cannot suffer, as we must, the pain of the death of the false self which is the despair of misrelating to the Void (the Void simply being our absolute contingency and finitude). As Hessert suggests, Christ has no false self, no way of being in the world that derives from the ‘power-driven’ and ‘wisdom-seeking’ agendas of culture (1Cor 2). His whole life was lived in light of the truth of his God-given identity as Son (“Abba, Father”), an identity he never abandoned to go off and construct another.

Our salvation requires not that Christ experience his own existence as meaningless, interpreting his own Cross as did they who pressed his suffering upon him as evidence of his meaninglessness and godforsakeness. That is, after all, what being crucified meant to them. And you can find Christians today who agree that if Christ does not experience himself as godforsaken and meaningless, he is not ‘fully human’.

But consider, false selves are a false humanity, not a truly full humanity, and to live in light of the culture’s ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’ is to live as ‘less’ than fully human. To be fully human in our fallen world – as Christ alone was – is to live and die in light of the God-given truth of who you are, something no cross can render meaningless.

The Void not suicide

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“Rebirth” by Delawer-Omar

I’ve been enjoying a Facebook conversation of Paul Hessert’s wonderful book Christ and the End of Meaning. I’ve quoted from Hessert’s book here before. It’s not an easy book to digest, but with the help of others each chapter’s review reveals bit more. Irish philosopher Peter Rollins also has an online discussion of the book, so naturally some of Rollins’ reading of Hessert is part of the conversation I’m in. If you haven’t encountered Rollins’ provocative and controversial ideas, check him out.

Rollins over-reaches, I think, in making his point against the “structure of meaning” we adopt from culture. I think he too indiscriminately dismisses the essential narrative/meaning-making structure of experience. It’s almost as if Rollins disposes of what we call the transcendentals (beauty, truth, goodness) or views them as impositions of fallen culture. I may be misunderstanding him, but I’m more confident Hessert isn’t doing this, and I want to focus on Hessert anyhow. But I fear that in trying to make my point (defending ‘meaning’ and ‘desire’), I might be understood as defending things I don’t believe in (i.e., false narratives and structures of meaning imposed on us by culture). In reading through Hessert (Ch. 2) again, I think I see his point more clearly, and I’d like to try to describe the common ground.

1) We are natural meaning-makers. On the one hand, we’re naturally driven to interpret our lives in meaningful ways – existentially, rationally, aesthetically, etc. We construct a ‘sense of self’ (an ‘identity’). This sense of self provides our answers to the questions, ‘Who am I really?’ and ‘What is my place in [the meaning of] the universe?’ question that get answered in terms of identity, relationships, belonging, significance, permanence, purpose, etc.). All textbook stuff.

2) Meaning-making as world-constructing. As finite, human beings, however, we don’t come into the world with pre-installed interpretations of life that give us the world as satisfying and meaningful. We’re born into the questions, not the answers. We have to ‘world-construct’ or compose our sense of self, and the materials out of which we build are the relationships and events of our lives, the very things whose meaning we’re seeking to establish. This search becomes a venture of despair for all of us. Why? Because nothing in or of the world (none of the ‘materials’ I use to world-construct) can tell me ‘who’ I am and what I mean. Why not? Because everything in the world is, like me, looking for its own meaning and purpose. Everything created is in that same fix, asking the same question. Indeed, to be created and finite just is to ask this question (a point on which Rollins and I may disagree if, as I suspect, he judges the question itself as misguided; that is, he sees the gospel as a way to free oneself from the questions since, in his view, there are no answers, only ways to live without them). Anyhow, we experience this failure immediately in life, but it typically takes a life-time to admit the failure of everything in the world to be a source of meaning and purpose. Hopefully our journey leads us to the Void, where only faith can lead us on.

3) Replacing ‘World’ with ‘God’. Now,  what is often said (which I’m guessing some read me as offering) is something like this: “Look, stop trying to derive meaning and satisfaction from anything in the world and just get it from God instead. God is not, like the world, caught up in some existential search. As benevolent creator, God can do for you what the world has failed to do for you – viz., give your life meaning and purpose.”

What I hear Hessert saying to this is: This isn’t enough. It’s not enough simply to replace ‘World’ with ‘God’ as the source from which we derive our meaning and satisfaction and leave everything else the same. There’s something else we’ve gotten badly wrong in confusing faith with the belief that if we just put ‘God’ in the place of ‘World’ then life will become satisfying and meaningful. There’s something structurally wrong here.

What’s structurally wrong is that this mere replacement leaves in place a fundamental failure to relate to God in terms of creaturely nothingness. It leaves unaddressed the mistaken priorities in how we self-relate (and world-relate and God-relate). Amazingly, it’s possible to replace the ‘World’ as our source for happiness with ‘God’ and still be unspeakably miserable. How so? Because the Self (the “I”) is still at the center, in charge of the meaning-making with both ‘God’ and ‘World’ as options on a meaning-making menu from which the Self chooses (from some imaginary location outside the two). What’s overlooked is the fact that the Self is constitutive of the ‘World’ that needs to be displaced. Too often today, even if ‘God’ replaces ‘World’ within a person’s explicit beliefs, the structure that supports and defends the Self is still in place.

4) Idol swapping. Leaving this structure in place leaves us with a Christianity that amounts essentially just swapping out idols – ‘God’ instead of ‘this’ or ‘that’ (wherein God is another this or that, if you follow me). This leaves intact the structures of existential despair. Even as Creator, Sustainer, and Savior, if God remains that which revolves around the Self, if this structure is in place, we’re still idolaters. If this is what Hessert is getting at (and I think it is), then (a) count me in, although (b) Rollins, I think, is saying something different (and more objectionable), but that’s another discussion.

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Dylan Guest sculpture

5) Restructuring and relinquishment. The fundamental restructuring (not mere replacing) that heals and redeems spells the death of the Self in all its false forms. It is an exchange that is both death and life: death of the autonomous Self, made relative to God as the Absolute in light of the Self’s nothingness. When our capacity for self-reflection (which cannot itself be an evil), for choice (which choices we cannot but make), and for meaning-making (the capacity for which cannot itself be evil and which defines choice inherently) is relinquished in the recognition of our nothingness, then structurally things are radically different. Now our meaning is “given” to us (not autonomously constructed “by us”) and relinquishment becomes possession, but a ‘possessing’ which is ‘being possessed’, a ‘desiring’ which is fulfilled in ‘being desired by’ God. In this sense we abandon our structure of meaning, but we are not unstructured or without meaning.

6) Transcendental structure. There are at least two different “structures” in Hessert’s discussion. Though he only discusses one, he hints at the other. One structure is the Self as centered and autonomous (whether bowing to an idol or to God) with God revolving around the Self in an economy of supply and demand that the Self orders and manages in terms of ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’ (1Cor 2) legitimized by culture. This structure has to be done away with. But what cannot be done away with is the transcendental structure of the human spirit – those God-given capacities (for thought, choice, self-relationality, self-transcendence, aesthetic perception and valuation).

The false self misappropriates these capacities in a despairing venture for meaning and certainty in ways culture permits, but functionally speaking these capacities remain intact for us even after our subjective powers of perception and agency become relativized by Christ. It is “I, not I, but Christ who lives in me” and not simply “I no longer live; Christ lives instead.” To judge these capacities as essentially mistaken or as an imposition of culture is to judge as mistaken the very God-given structure which makes possible “hearing” the preaching of Christ crucified and “faithing” (Hessert’s terms for “active, living, faith” that refuses cultural impositions of power and wisdom) in response. And that kind of dismissal, I suggest, is just the autonomous Self donning yet another disguise – this time the refusal to desire at all, the refusal to make-meaning at all, the refusal to feel or make aesthetic valuations at all, a kind of refusal to ‘be’ – all of which are impossible refusals to carry out. One sees how corrupt the autonomous Self is and so chooses to starve it into non-existence by denying all desire and meaning. But this leaves the Self in place just as securely as the culturally imposed structures leave it in place, because to deny desire and meaning is not to affirm the truth of one’s nothingness. That’s just a kind of suicide, and embracing the Void is not suicide.

The Spirit-transformed ‘ego’

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The Spirit-transformed human ego directs all of its powers of identification and differentiation to one thing: God its Creator. The ego realizes its own nothingness in attempting to get its feelings of solidity and permanence in identifying with and differentiating from some “other.” When it does this with the created order, as impermanent as it is, it collapses into nothingness. When it does this with God as benevolent source and ground, it steps into its God-given logos (its meaning).

The Creator is the ultimate “You” without whom our human “I” cannot ultimately sustain itself against our own nothingness. When the human ego fully and consciously accepts its nothingness before God, then it realizes that God, not the human ego, is the ultimate Uncreated “I” of all, and that we all are created “you’s” receiving grace and being at all times. The ego is removed from the throne of Selfhood and God the Center is placed there.

When the human ego is displaced from being the center of its own life story, it can be free from itself to fully realize its potential as a living temple of divine presence, giving and receiving love in all its ‘stories’. When it does this, it participates in God’s life and re-expresses God in the world and finds the weight of reality it longs for. Thus the Spirit-transformed ego uses its inherent emptiness to be filled with God.

(Dwayne Polk)

God is pink

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I first entitled this post “Pink dream.” You’ll see below why. But I later had to change the name to “God is pink,” and I hope you’ll appreciate why that’s better communicates what’s going on here.

My daughter, Jessica, is Deputy Director of the Iraqi-American Reconciliation Project (IARP). This month they’re featuring the work of a young Kurdish Iraq photographer some of whose photos I’ve included here.. She writes:

For the month of August, IARP is showcasing the art of photographer Jamal Penjweny. Jamal is an Iraqi Kurdish photographer, filmmaker, and war artist. This week we will be featuring photos from Jamal’s new project, Pink Dream. When discussing the project, Jamal said “These are black-and-white photographs onto which I have scribbled bright and rosy drawings. The original images speak of sadness and loss, but my additions elevate them, telling the viewer to read instead a message of hope. When I thought of a color to represent peace and happiness, I could see only one – and that was pink.”

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Jamal’s photos beautifully embody the truth that God has put himself at the center of human consciousness in that irreducible appetite for truth, beauty and goodness that defines us at our core. Who and what must God be if he gives himself graciously as the ground and end of our irreducible, indelible desire for truth, beauty and goodness, if his existence is, unlike ours, the fullness of a truth, beauty and goodness which does not achieve or derive its fullness through sources and reasons and realities outside himself Reminds me of Flowers in Auschwitz.

Music1While I’m in the Arab world (my home for half my life) linking the work of local artists to traditional Christian anthropology (viz., our being inseparable from the divine beauty that creates and calls us), let me draw your attention to the work of Faried Omarah.

What belief do you see at work in his depiction to the right of music as antecedent to, not a consequence of, the layers of identity that define us materially and culturally? I see a created icon of divine apatheia in the midst of finitude and suffering.

 

The coincidence of loving and being loved

unity-rhiannon-marhiFellow Californian Rhiannon Marhi combines captivating colors and themes that settle the heart down and help it find its center where all is gift – where one experiences oneself most fundamentally as graciously gifted. It’s popular (and correct, I think) to argue that beauty describes a more fundamental, more primal mode of knowing than language. That’s why ‘ineffable’ doesn’t imply ‘irrational’ or ‘meaningless’. When I find a great quote, I think of what it would look like if it were painted. Nicholas of Cusa’s quote here speaks of self-knowledge as coincident with knowledge of being loved by God. I thought that quote sounds like Marhi’s painting appears.

“The likeness which seems to be created by me is the Truth which creates me, so that in this way, at least, I apprehend how closely I ought to be bound to You, since, in You, being loved coincides with loving. For if in You who are my likeness I ought to love myself, then I am exceedingly bound to do so when I see that You love me as Your creature and image.” (Nicholas of Cusa, 1401-1464 CE)

Saved by joy

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Sometimes questions arise that enable us to see the meaning of theological claims with practical clarity. I’ve always sought to pursue this practical-existential side of things, believing that the meaning of our claims is, in the end, just the difference they make to how we appropriate their truth in all the transforming ways that we give the name “salvation” to. It was this level of appropriation or integration which, if I’m not mistaken, most informed the early Christological debates that produced the Nicene and following ecumenical expressions of faith. How does this or that theological claim (whether it’s made by Arius, or Nestorius, or Barth, Moltmann, Boyd or whomever) explain, inform, and empower the particular experience of worship and personal transformation in Christ which the early generations of believers gave the name ‘the Faith’ to? This is at least one level, an existential stage, upon which we can put theological claims to the test.

Greg earlier asked me in the comments section of a recent post, what I made of of 1Cor 5:21 (God made him who knew no sin to “be sin” for us) and Gal 3.13 (Christ “became our curse”). Greg takes these as evidence of a particular understanding of atonement (i.e., what actually is happening in the Cross and how it does the saving work of freeing and transforming us). The logic behind such a view is a certain entailment between choice and consequence. As Greg argues it, Jesus has to experience the “death consequences” of our sinful choices (which consequences are the despair of godforsakenness). These consequences must be experienced because they’re “intrinsic” to the sinful choices we make. But it makes little sense to say that experiencing the existential despair of godforsakenness is “intrinsic” to my choices and then argue that someone other than me can experience those consequences on my behalf.

kafka_comic_400On the contrary, if the consequence of existential despair is “intrinsic” to one’s choices (and I agree it is), it has to be experienced by the subject of those choices, not an innocent, scapegoated subject. This is where Greg’s view of atonement shows the essential penal weave to the fabric of its logic. Against this logic it should be acknowledged that those who sin already know the despair their choices result in, for no choosing of one’s way through life outside one’s truest identity in Christ is going to result in anything but despair. So the consequences that are intrinsic to our choices are invariably experienced – by us who make those choices. As Kierkegaard said, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are” (in Christ). One is saved, then, from the “death consequences” of his sinful choices by making different choices, but there’s no saving merit in someone who knows who he truly is (i.e., Christ) suffering the despair of being confused about who he is – as if that’s going to restore us who don’t know who we are to our truest identity in Christ. On the contrary, Christ shows us who we are by enjoying who he is on the inside of the pain, rejection, and violence we fabricate false identities to deal with. Christ saves us from the despair of not knowing who we are as loved by God in a fallen world by himself becoming who we are meant to be, loved by God, in that fallen world. That – not the tragic passibilism of a shattered divine consciousness – unlocks the door.

As I earlier suggested, Christ’s “being made sin by God” (1Cor 5.21) can hardly be thought to represent any transformation of God the Son into sin substantially, since sin is not a quantifiable ‘stuff’ that can move from the guilty to the innocent. We ought to understand this, rather, as Christ’s having stepped into our scapegoating violence. Christ is “made sin by God” in the sense that God turns Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms in which we identify the innocent victim with our sin. Gal 3.13 makes the same claim. Christ’s “becoming a curse” for us is equivalent to Christ’s being treated by us in all the ways we identify with having been cursed by God.

What’s this have to do with the practical-existential challenge of integrating particular beliefs and models into our lives in transforming and saving ways? Some (Greg included, as he’s made clear) struggle with integrating into their lives in saving and transforming ways any vision of God that doesn’t have God giving up his happiness (beatitude) by identifying with our particular despair. 1Cor 5 and Gal 3 represent for Greg the Pauline perspective on the divine abandonment to godforsakenness that frees and heals us. But as I’ve been laying out in this and other recent posts, the logic doesn’t work.

How might this older, more traditional understanding of the Cross be appropriated practically-existentially? The short version is – we’re saved from sin and death by God’s life manifest in resurrection and from despair by God’ abiding beatitude. I can only describe it in terms of being on one side and then the other of the truth of our created finitude, testified to consistently by the experience of generations of Christian believers and ascetics.

First – stepping into the Void on its created side as embracing the truth of finitude. There’s no final perfection of our happiness and truest identity that is not cognizant of the truth that we are created, and that the truth of being created is the truth of finitude, of our nothingness apart from God’s gracious creative act. We are painted into being. And this is experienced on the front end as an experience of the Void. Apart from an experience of our created finitude in terms of the Void, we can only continue attempting to establish a meaning and significance for ourselves that is over-and-against God and not a participation of finitude in the undiminished infinite beauty, goodness, and truth that God is. If we balk and complain about being nothing and want our existential healing to be purchased at the expense of God’s own existential fullness and not convertible with that fullness, we are only refusing to come to terms with the truth of our finitude.

Second – stepping through the Void on its divine side as participating in God’s life. The first step through the void of one’s finitude and nothingness into personal existence on the other side is a step into a life of participation. When you no longer view your existence as a product of your own, you also realize you can’t view your own meaning and significance as your own accomplishment. You see, too, that meaning and value are, like being itself, God-given, and enjoyed through participation in God’s life, and you’re OK with this. In fact, you celebrate it because it opens up vistas of existential fullness.

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If the first existential moment is “I am nothing,” the second is “I, not I, but Christ am everything.” Here “I, not I, but Christ” (having become a single, indivisible substantive) replaces “I.” There is no longer any “I” that can be spoken without speaking “Christ.” Descartes’ “I” doesn’t survive the Void. It gets crushed under the weight of creation contemplated independently, seeking first to establish itself as free, and only then to relate itself to God.

God is the only value, meaning, and personal identity on the other side of the Void. The diversity of created values and beauties exist, truly exist, as participations in God, the highest value and truest good. What do I mean by participation? I mean the asymmetrical relational unity of the true ‘Cry’ (not that of abandonment, but that of Sonship: Rom 8.15). We are given, via the Spirit, the Son’s very own cry of filial identity: “Abba, Father.” Because one is ‘given’ it and possesses it as a son/daughter “in the Son,” one participates in it. This is where one experiences – not studies, not agrees to the truth of, but becomes an embodiment of “all things are ‘from’ and ‘through’ and ‘to’ God” (Rom 11.36). The flip side of this truth is that God is ‘from’ and ‘through’ and ‘to’ nothing.

The bad news is there is no “cross” on the divine side of the Void, within the fullness of the divine life that becomes our life – no scapegoating violence manufacturing even a moment of negation within its infinitude, no privation of the true, the good and the beautiful, no falsifying abandonment or forsakenness to darken the divine consciousness. There is most certainly a kenotic giving-and-receiving of all one is to the other, but this is God’s delight and beatitude. The good news is that this is true in the darkest of circumstances and upon every cross.